Jack Smith, the new superintendent of schools in Montgomery County, Md., outlined a plan for narrowing the achievement gap. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The new superintendent of Montgomery County’s public schools delivered a passionate call for a concerted effort to narrow the achievement gap that has left black and Hispanic children lagging in the high-performing district, describing the issue as “a moral imperative for the community.”

In words that school board members lauded as blunt and on the mark, schools chief Jack Smith, on the job since July 1, said the 156,000-student system cannot maintain its high level of success without doing more for students of color, those in poverty, English language learners and children in special education.

Smith said the issue affects all 1,040,000 people in Montgomery “because our society, our community, cannot continue to have a fracture in its learning for children.”

“We can’t do that,” Smith said. “We can’t have some who achieve at the highest levels and some who don’t achieve. We can’t have some who walk into accelerated programs in college and many who find themselves in remedial college or working in the lowest wage jobs in our society and they cannot get living-wage jobs. We cannot tolerate it any longer.”

Smith spoke for about 25 minutes at a school board meeting Monday night, saying he is optimistic about the possibilities for change. He stopped short of providing a detailed plan for the coming year, and school officials said more specifics would come soon.

Smith has said he plans to present a more detailed vision to principals and others in mid-August.

The achievement gap has been a long-standing concern in Montgomery’s fast-growing school system, where white and Asian students have fared better on tests and other academic measures than their black and Hispanic peers. There are often stark differences in graduation rates, SAT scores and standardized test results.

White and Asian students have a four-year high school graduation rate of 95 percent or higher in Montgomery; 87 percent of African American students and 80 percent of Hispanic students graduate in four years. On state standardized tests in English for third grade last year, more than 60 percent of white and Asian students met or exceeded expectations, compared with less than 30 percent of black students and less than 25 percent of Hispanic students.

“Montgomery County has a long, long history of high achievement for many students — not all students,” he said Monday night.

Smith has said the achievement gap is his top priority and that he is confident the system will begin to see signs of progress after the first year. Smith said educators must respond to the needs of every child, helping the highly successful keep achieving while finding the best ways to help those who struggle.

“We must maintain a high level of performance across our system for all the students who have it now, and we must find new and innovative ways to improve our teaching and to provide the learning opportunities that are needed so that all children have a strong academic program and the background they need when they walk off the stage,” he said, referring to high school graduation.

He emphasized that he will work to build up cultural competency among educators, saying they must understand “at the deepest, most human level how to meet the needs of every student.” He also said the school systems need to emphasize community partnerships and engagement, referring to a new summer program for children at high-poverty schools that is funded through a public-private partnership.

Smith also spoke of a need for operational excellence and highlighted the importance of learning accountability and results, saying Montgomery has been a leader for decades in “the science of education.”

“Montgomery County was doing this before it was required by the state, before it was required by No Child Left Behind, and we need to continue to refine that,” he said.

Smith did not say precisely how success would be measured, but he talked about using milestones and assessments that the district already has in place “to know we’re really on track.” He said educators will follow student progress closely so that they can take early action instead of waiting until the end of the school year to address problems.

“We can know every week, every month, how Jack is doing in math and what his areas of need are and how we’re going to meet them. And we can accelerate that, rather than slowing it down,” he said. “We shouldn’t always slow things down in school.”

He noted that Montgomery County has outstanding career programs that are “completely inaccessible” to many students because they do not have the requisite reading, writing and computational skills.

When he finished, board members praised his sense of urgency and commitment.

“Wow. Yes. Amen,” said board member Jill Ortman-Fouse. “This is welcome news, and I fully support this. . . . We’re ready as a community, we’re ready as a school system, to get behind you.”

School board member Patricia O’Neill thanked Smith for speaking “the cold hard truth” and said she believes it is “what we need to do.”

“Sometimes as a district you can become complacent in the touting of your excellence, but we know we have a lot of students that are not performing,” she said.

Earlier Monday evening, students with the district’s Minority Scholars Program told the school board of the difficulties they and others face, and Smith referred to their call for change as evidence of a need for action.